One of the ways we provide hospitality at our establishment is through our less-than-boozy drink offerings. On our menu, we have a hard liquor section (named after a licensing complaint lodged by a neighbor about what we would be offering) as well as a low octane (low proof) section. The low proof drinks have gotten a bit of press since it goes against the common conception that drinking is about getting drunk as quickly as possible for as little money as possible. Indeed, the general idea is not too dissimilar to the session beer (4.5% ABV and under) movement; our beer list works in parallel with light offerings like Berliner Weisses alongside normal strength beers and heavy hitters like double IPAs and Russian Imperial Stouts.
Low proof cocktail offerings turn out to be rather popular during business discussions, on dates, when enjoying food, with family, and for people driving. Other reasons include folks who are genetically less disposed for breaking down alcohol as well as session drinkers especially during patio season. The strangest was a trio of guys who were picking the strongest of our drinks for a few rounds, and in debating as to whether they should get one more, the ones who wanted to prolong their evening without getting too irresponsible pushed for the compromise of selecting that round from our low proof offerings. Personally, top on my list is that since our establishment is a restaurant with an amazing chef, I want to respect his efforts and allow people to have the opportunity to partake of our cocktail list without compromising their ability to enjoy, savor, and remember our culinary offerings. At the same time, I also want to cater to people who want or expect that regular strength drink.
I describe the potency of the low octane section as being around half to at most two-thirds the strength of the rest of the list with my ideal target being between the equivalency of 1 and 1 1/4 oz of 80 proof spirit (with the strongest on the regular list being around 3 oz of 80 proof equivalency). We accomplish this by utilizing fortified wines such as Madeira, aromatized wines like vermouth and Lillet, and low proof liqueurs like Aperol. Just like Dinah Sanders outlined in her The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Cocktails to Keep You Level book, we do not shy away from using regular proof or even overproof spirits in these drinks but we try to keep the volumes of these stronger ingredients at or under 1/2 oz per build. Therefore, we select higher impact flavors where a little goes a long way such as absinthe, Chartreuse, and funky Jamaican rum.
What about those who do not drink at all? This includes people who are pregnant, on medication, under age, or other? While we do offer house-made sodas, many of our guests want something a bit more bespoke. Though the management did not want to spare space on the menu for such no-proof cocktails, the servers know to that I am excited about making mocktails and gladly suggest them to their guests. Part of my thinking has come from Bertha Stockbridge and her seminal 1920 book What to Drink: The Blue Book of [Non-alcoholic] Beverages. Bertha was riding and promoting the wave of Temperance, but she did not want to see the artistry of drink making come to a halt if alcohol were dropped from the equation (well, her 1918 book came before Prohibition and her second book a year into the Noble Experiment). A lot of her drink building came through fruit and other flavors locked into syrups and shrubs that could be prepared in advance.
Another influence for me is Tiki. Many of the magical flavors of Tiki have little to do with the booze and work either to mask the alcohol content or in the better ones to complement the alcohols’ flavors. Tiki syrups and juices pack a lot of impact such as passion fruit and cinnamon syrups. But Tiki was not just about what liquids were in the glass, but what about the vessel and the garnish? In terms of garnish, I often take extra time to garnish my mocktails. Anything from a long lemon peel snake to a lime-wedge (with clove eyes and a forked citrus twist tongue), Tiki man to a pirate ship made of citrus peels can make the drink really pop. When I have delivered the drink to a table myself, one can see the look of amazement in their eyes that they did not just receive that glass of Diet Coke that they got at the last place, and one can see the envy and excitement in their tablemates’ eyes. For example, more than once one of my flavor combinations worked so well that I got a repeat order and a request from their friend to have that with booze.
A lot of these concepts come with the reinterpretation of why people generally go to bars or restaurants to drink; these perceptions are often instilled during people’s early 20s (and frequently years before from people imbibing underage). However, it does not change my philosophy that bartenders have the liquid capacity to improve people’s evenings by offering them something interesting to drink. Hospitality is trying to figure out what can make the guest’s night better, and all too often, large amounts of alcohol make hospitality tougher to deliver.